Dr Ilian Iliev is the Managing Director of EMV Capital, a London-based international investor focusing on technology companies in the sustainability and healthcare sectors. EMV Capital was acquired by NetScientific PLC, an AIM-listed life sciences and sustainability technology investment and commercialisation group, in September 2020, and Ilian also acts as CEO of NetScientific.
As 2021 begins, start-ups and scale-ups reflect on the past year that has been like no other. The challenges fast-growth businesses have overcome, and the learnings that ultimately will change the way they scale their organisations moving forwards will all be up for assessment.
For Dr Ilian Iliev, the Managing Director of EMV Capital, the pandemic provided an opportunity to use team’s vast experience, investor and corporate networks, to help start-ups make it through the most pressing times.
“We are a specialist investor focusing on the industry, energy and healthcare space. We like to invest in companies at the start of their growth journey, and primarily we invest in companies that are pre-series A. Our approach is proactive – we typically take a Board position, and work closely with our portfolio companies, guiding them through the different phases of growth.”
When many organisations were hitting pause on their operations as the pandemic took hold, llian saw it as a chance to make a difference by uplifting the support it offered its portfolio of fledgling companies.
“We took an early decision in March 2020 to work through the crisis. We knew it was going to be tough, but to survive the pandemic, we needed to view this as a macro-opportunity. There was an immediate impact on several of our portfolio companies with some planned fundraisings paused, cash preservation efforts or helping them rethink how to engage with a rapidly shifting market. At the same time, the technologies and products of other companies had direct relevance for the fight against COVID-19, and we helped them refocus and communicate their strategy to the investors .”
The pandemic highlighted to Ilian how important support from other organisations has been in making it through moments of hardship, explaining: “Our ecosystem of investors and advisors has been incredibly supportive, both for us as a business, but also the firms we invest in. Whenever there has been a problem, we have joined together to find a solution.”
Ilian and the team also took the lessons they learnt from the first national lockdown on board, anticipating the second – and unfortunately now the third lockdown. This meant when the UK was asked again to shut down in October, and the lockdown was further intensified after Christmas, the impact to EMV Capital’s day to day operations was minimal.
“The most recent lockdown has had a minimal disruption to the business. We have built a sense of resilience, and our team is used to working remotely and not seeing each other in person for long periods of time. We made all our operational adjustments back in March, which meant we were able to carry on business as usual this time round”.
A major development during 2020 was the acquisition of EMV Capital which Ilian founded, by NetScientific PLC, an AIM-listed group with a focus on the commercialisation of healthcare technologies internationally. Subsequent to the acquisition, Ilian became group CEO in addition to his MD role at EMV Capital. Describing the transaction drivers Ilian said:
“We realised that there were significant synergies between EMV Capital and NetScientific PLC, combining the latter’s cross-Atlantic healthcare portfolio and off-balance sheet investment capability, with EMV Capital’s industrials and sustainability portfolio and active management approach. Importantly, EMV Capital’s private investor and corporate VC network provides a leverage to the combined group for further growth”.
As a leader, Ilian also learnt important lessons to take away from the challenging year of 2020, with the most valuable being trust.
“It’s integral for the team members to trust each other – trust is the social capital that binds strong organisations together and helps them perform. Since March, we’ve had lots of one-on-one meetings but for health and safety reasons, we have not all been able to come together as a group in the same office. Despite this, we’ve worked remarkably well under pressure and stress, and in a strange way the organisational culture I think has deepened through this period. It’s a testament to my team that they’ve been able to adapt so quickly and ensure day to day activity remains on track, while remaining committed to the transformational growth initiatives we implemented through the year”
Ilian has advice to share with start-ups who are embarking on their growth journey. “No matter how big the shock to the economic system is, there are multiple growth opportunities when a crisis presents itself.”
Ilian adds, “I think fighter pilots are taught the OODA system in situations of crisis – Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. The same is very much true for entrepreneurial companies. It’s important to stay calm, understand the implications of any decisions, extend your cash runway as much as possible and then, finally, look at all the opportunities that are being opened up to you. As well as this, you must stay flexible when it comes to your plan. Circumstances change and entrepreneurs must be ready to adapt accordingly.”.
The last year has also taught Ilian the value of the Level39 community and how important it is for Level39 to grow as a global tech hub.
“Tech clusters will always be important. The ecosystem that we have in London, is on a par with anything else we see elsewhere in the world, whether it’s Silicon Valley or New York. We all need to work together to ensure our precious tech ecosystem thrives in a post-Covid-19 world”.